In the 1880s, students in the School of Mines (now Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science) had chemistry requirements in their first two years. One doesn’t usually think about what that may have entailed in the 19th century, but apparently it often included purchasing a large wooden box of standard chemicals and tools for the laboratory portion of those classes.
Earlier this year, the University Archives was approached by a donor who wanted to donate her great-grandfather’s chemistry set. Harmon
Cozzens was a student of the School of Mines, earning an Engineer of Mines degree in 1885. We know he was at Columbia between Fall 1881 and June 1885, living locally at 12 Bond Street, NYC during the time he was enrolled at Columbia’s School of Mines. We discovered a digitized 25th anniversary class book which details what he was up to in the intervening years with much of his career spent out in Colorado in various mining-related positions. He married in 1891 and had two daughters in 1892 and 1897, respectively. And from the text of the entry, he was apparently quite the jokester back in his college days.
According to the 1883 Handbook (the one we found closest to his first year), students were encouraged to purchase their required apparatus supplies “of any dealer in the city,” but there was also an option to borrow. The catalogue states: “To save inconvenience and expense to students, and to ensure a proper selection, the school undertakes, at considerable trouble and expense, to lend apparatus” with an array of conditions and deposits of money depending on your year. It would appear Cozzens opted to purchase his chemistry set for his studies. And a fine purchase it was! His chemistry set is housed in a beautiful wooden box with multiple layers of tools and powders seemingly not touched very much since last used in the 1880s.
Because the box was filled with chemicals, upon arrival at the RBML we sent it down to our CUL Conservation colleagues for cleaning, re-housing, and assessment by Environmental Health & Safety staff. The set was tested for the presence of heavy metals and other substances that might be dangerous to users. Thankfully, the majority of heavy metals tested were not detected and none of the four detected heavy metals (chromium, lead, tin, and zinc) were above the OSHA standard. The box was cleared for use – with disposable gloves. Our Conservation colleagues then went to work cleaning the multiple layers inside the chemistry set and creating new acid-free housing for the wooden box to protect it. The clever housing also allows it to be more safely stored, transported and presented for future show-and-tell sessions.
We look forward to sharing this unique addition with students and other visitors to the RBML.